Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Theme Song Nostalgia

(Discovered this essay in my computer, and even after thirteen years, it still rings true.)

I was half-listening to some classical music on radio last night while browsing through a magazine, when I began to feel strange. I was transported back to my old living room in the first house I ever owned, listening to stereo through two different radios, one broadcasting the left stereo channel and the other the right. It was an odd sensation.

Those were the days when I listened—really listened—to music. I had memorized the few LPs that I owned. I built my own Hi-Fi system, including the huge speaker enclosure that dominated the room. The local public radio station was experimenting with a new technology called stereophonic sound, that promised to out-Hi-Fi the best (until then) music reproduction available. There were a few very high-priced stereo amplifiers on the market, but they were out of my reach. Even though I was using a little table-model radio to pick up the right channel, I could hear clearly the great depth of the music. It was like being in the auditorium while the orchestra played. I was enchanted.

The theme music for the program was “Venus” from Gustolf Holst’s suite The Planets. Beginning very softly with long, sweet notes, the music fit the mood of the evening. And last night, a million miles and fifty years away from that little living room, I closed my eyes and melted.

Music has a way of connecting me to my past, the same way odors do. Not long ago I was in a room with a lot of people, and suddenly smelled an old girlfriend of mine, one whom I haven’t thought of in many years. Someone in the room was wearing her perfume. I avoided looking around the room. I didn’t want to see her. But I remembered. And I can’t hear certain pieces of music without feeling moved—literally—into my past.

A few years later than that first taste of stereo music, I was driving through the campus of Iowa State University, near sundown. The trees and the green grass blazed with the golden glow from the sun, and the university radio station, WOL, was signing off with its theme music, Howard Hanson’s Romantic Symphony. More long, sweet chords, music I couldn’t remember ever hearing before. The whole scene was etched in my mind, and whenever I hear that music now I not only remember, I re-live that time. It was a life-changing experience, going to school again after twenty years of building a career and a family and what I had thought was my life.

Two years later, having finished my master’s program and moved to San Francisco in hopes of starting a new career, I was exploring that spectacular city one Sunday morning and listening to the local classical music station KKHI on my car radio. Just as I turned off Marina Boulevard and encountered the Palace of Fine Arts, set like a jewel in a little park and reflected in a pool—a Taj Mahal in the bright morning sunshine—the radio began playing Ralph Von Williams’s Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. It was so perfect an accompaniment to the visual symphony I was taking in, I decided on the spot that someday I would film that place and use that music as a sound track.

Maybe that was a time when I was more susceptible to romantic music, or more susceptible to romance in general. But I seemed to hear more music that I’d never heard before, music that grabbed me and never let me go. One of the many music programs on KKHI used Grieg’s Holberg Suite as its theme music, and I listened to it nearly every day for two years. The Grieg isn’t the kind of music I usually pick out of my library when I want to listen to something, but when I hear it, it’s another old friend, and I’m carried back to my Volkswagen bus, driving in the California sunshine through golden hills accented with green swaths of brush and trees that trace the valleys down to the Bay.

A few years after I’d returned to “normalcy” back in the Midwest, I got interested in classical guitar and, perhaps sensitized by my new passion, heard more and more of it on the radio. Another evening classical program on the University of Cincinnati’s station WGUC used “Memories of Alhambra” by Francisco Tarrega as their theme music. I was toying with the idea of learning to play the guitar myself, and I thought that if I could ever play just that one piece, I’d be satisfied. When I first heard it, I couldn’t imagine how it could be done—it sounds more like two guitars, yet I knew it was composed for a soloist. It is played mostly with two fingers, rapidly alternating to produce a soft and sweet melody, with a low accompaniment played with the thumb. It was another of those theme songs marking a period in my life when I felt most alive, and when I hear it today, I always feel that time.

There are lots of other musical pieces that remind me of the past, sometimes with nostalgia, sometimes just a familiar story, such as a favorite drama series on television. I don’t know who composed most of them, for they were usually written specifically for the programs, and after the series ended, the music disappeared. I did experience a flashback, however, one day while pushing a cart along the aisles of Krogers, when the theme music from “Hill Street Blues” drifted out of the store’s sound system. It was instantly recognizable and I smiled, even though I had no inclination to revisit that television series. I understand it’s available on DVD and perhaps on some obscure cable channel.

When I was more active in building my record collection, I did seek out such memory music as Franz Liszt’s Les Preludes, which was used as bridge music in the radio version of “The Lone Ranger” when I was a child. It’s not as often recognized as the Overture to William Tell by Rossini, but it was just as much a part of the dramatic emphasis for that series, and hearing it always reminds me of those days.

Music has always been an important part of my emotional life. Emotions from my past seem dry and remote usually, when I can recall them. Until the memories sneak in under the wall, drawn by particular pieces. Such as hearing recently the Fifth Dimension singing “Age of Aquarius” from the musical Hair, that Judith and I played at the end of our marriage ceremony sixteen years ago, full of hope and excitement that reminded us both that even though we were grandparents, romance was still possible.

Even fragments, such as the drum solo from Inna Gadda Da Veda by the Iron Butterfly (about as far from the dreamy strains of Holst’s “Venus” as one could get). Instantly, I’m in my car forty years ago listening to a tape from someone I’ve left behind, and I know that even though I’m not going back, she’ll never really be gone from my mind.

Or dancing with my fiancĂ© in an outdoor ballroom to Tony Bennett singing “I Won’t Cry Anymore” and I tell her I really like the song and she stiffens—she thought I was about to break off our engagement—and I spend the rest of the evening kissing away her tears and her fears. I don’t hear Tony Bennett very often anymore.

I suppose I could tell the story of my life in music. Each piece has a flavor extracted from the moments when it became engraved—hard wired in the neural connections in my brain. Like most old people, I cherish my collection of photographs that remind me of my life and those I’ve loved. Still, it’s the theme songs from all the episodes of my history, all the music that unlocks the real nostalgia.

Don Skiff, June 9, 2005

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